An uncommon, unconquerable mind: our friend, Julius S. Scott III (1955–2021)

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] In “An uncommon, unconquerable mind: our friend, Julius S. Scott III (1955–2021),” N.D.B. Connolly (Public Books) examines the groundbreaking work of Julius S. Scott III.

In his 1995 book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the famed anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot described the Haitian Revolution as an “unthinkable” nonevent. By this he meant that European powers of the late 18th century had no ability to even conceive that Black people could, through their own power, overturn a slave society, much less establish a modern nation.

But the readers of Professor Scott’s work knew better. Preceding Trouillot’s argument by nearly a decade, Julius, as a history graduate student at Duke University, showed that the slaving world of the Euro-Atlantic didn’t just think that a place—an event—like Haiti was, well, thinkable. Slavers trembled, knowing that it was eventual, inevitable, and that it had to be battled back with constant, repressive vigilance. And yet the Haitian Revolution occurred, nonetheless. The “Idea of Haiti” remains unconquered still.

The late Julius S. Scott, III, first documented that idea in his now award-winning book, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. Professor Scott tracked the swirl of 18th-century rumors, news, and ideas about Black freedom in the Americas, and he cast the “masterless Caribbean” as fundamental to the making of antislavery politics and the wider Atlantic world.

Julius’s argument appeared as a published book only recently, in 2018. However, the 1986 dissertation from which it came, itself something of a common wind, had a legendary life well before that. I first met Professor Scott in 2008, when I was myself a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. Julius, the man, remained easily accessible and unfailingly approachable, particularly to those who frequented Michigan’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, as it was then known. [. . .] His has been called “the most read, sought after and discussed English-language dissertation in the humanities and social sciences during the 20th century.” Indeed, past students likened it to an underground mix tape. It had been swapped and trafficked to the point where mere citation counts could no longer do it justice.

But somebody somewhere was counting. In our final private conversation in March 2021, Julius let it slip that he’d actually been receiving royalty checks from the country’s principal distributor of doctoral theses. So often had his dissertation been requested. (And knowing Julius as a man without an ounce of humblebrag in him, I knew that story had to be true.)

When I last sat with Professor Julius Scott, it was to interview him for a book I’m writing on how Jim Crow politics shape the writing of history. What I got, no surprise, was a personal, striking, and deeply literate itinerary into a book once thought unthinkable, one that has become an intellectual revolution all its own.

Nathan Connolly (NC): The Common Wind. Can you discuss your own sense of the project and its genealogy? What did you hope it would accomplish?

Julius Scott (JS): I wanted to make sure people understood that particular areas of the world connected to each other. The North American British colonies were part of a subregion that also included other places that people connected to. Ships from Philadelphia and Norfolk, for example, were all the time in different areas of the Caribbean. And those vessels, people, and the ideas they carried were connected to one another. That’s what I wanted to try to get people to understand.

[. . .] NC: But you were still a long way from thinking about anything called the “Atlantic” or the “Black Atlantic.” What happened when you got into grad school at Duke University in the 1980s?

JS: I wanted to know what one could say about the connections among Black people, about that particular relationship, to make Black people understood. There were some particularly important things to understand about the connection between people in South Carolina and people in Barbados, for example, something that we learned about reading [my advisor] Peter Woods’s Black Majority. You couldn’t really understand the history of South Carolina without understanding how it was connected to Barbados. And even though Peter didn’t know much about Barbados, he did know about South Carolina, so it kind of helped us to understand something about each of these places and the ways they tied in to other places connected to them. [. . .]

NC: Hence, the Caribbean.

JS: Right. The revolution in Haiti became an interesting way to do that. I was interested in the particulars of the revolution in Haiti, but the ways that connected to other things was what made it really interesting. I remember I went to Peter’s class one day and he said, “You know what? Why don’t you come give a guest lecture in my seminar? You can do it in a way that connects Haiti and the Haitian Revolution to the American Revolution. That would be really great.” So that was how these things accidentally connected for me. And I began thinking about, again, the questions that had been presented to me during the 1968 Olympics, seeing a wider Black world than just Africa versus the US. [. . .]

NC: That’s the thing, right? Sometimes it’s not even concrete evidence, but rather indications, and you have to build whole new approaches on that. What were some of these “indications”?

JS: There were ways you could look at the north coast of Jamaica and really understand how it was connected to places in Cuba. [. . .] For example, there were slaves in Jamaica who ran away to Cuba. So it was for us to understand: How did they know about what Cuba was? What did they expect was going to happen in Cuba? What was different about that? Why did we not have a framework that helped us to understand better what it is that brings people from one place to the other? And then of course, once we looked at the bigger Caribbean, there were all kinds of these cosmic connections.

[. . .] St. Thomas was connected to a Danish island, was connected to places in the Spanish and French world. There were so many different connections. And a lot of it had to do with runaway slaves, with the difficulty they presented to enslavers in those places. It’s one thing for a Jamaican slave to find their way to another British island. Just send them back to the original place. It’s another thing if a slave runs away from Jamaica to a Spanish island. Now it’s more complicated. What the people on that Spanish island have to do to return that individual to the British islands is more complicated. It also suggests that each runaway slave might have had an understanding, from their perspective, of the complex relationship between Britain and Spain. Understanding the world these individuals were pointing us toward was part of what became interesting to me in graduate school. [. . .]

For full interview, see https://www.publicbooks.org/julius-s-scott-iii-1955-2021-the-common-wind Also see https://repeatingislands.com/2021/12/27/julius-s-scott-influential-historian-of-the-caribbean-dies-at-66

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